If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?
But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs. nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.
However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!
Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.
So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.
In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.
What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.
This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.
There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.
However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.